EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 22, 2013

Think outside the bars: 'Prisoners' isn't what you're expecting

By Cary Darling
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

---- — Anyone who pays even passing attention to the trailers and commercials for “Prisoners” may think they have a handle on what this movie is about: Hugh Jackman’s an aggrieved father on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter, and he’s not going to leave a stone unturned — or a face unpunched — until he finds her.

It’s “Taken” recast with Wolverine in the lead. The script pretty much writes itself, complete with vigilante violence, easy resolution and audience catharsis. Cue up “Prisoners II” for next year.

But that’s not what French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose 2010 film, “Incendies,” was nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar) and writer Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) have in mind. Grim, grey and surprisingly gruesome, “Prisoners” — the director’s first foray into English-language filmmaking — has its flaws, but predictability is not one of them.

Jackman is Keller Dover, a Pennsylvania home remodeler who prides himself on protecting his family, whether it’s teaching his teenage son (Dylan Minnettev) to hunt, or keeping a well-ordered survivalist’s pantry in the basement. But his sense of order is shattered when — while having Thanksgiving dinner with neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) — his daughter (Erin Gerasimovich) and the Birch’s daughter (Kyla Drew Simmons) are snatched off the street in broad daylight.

The immediate suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a guy sleeping in an RV parked near the house. The trouble is, Alex has the mind of a 10-year-old, is in the care of his aunt (Melissa Leo), and has no real idea what’s going on. Lead investigator Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) has no choice but to let him go because there’s no evidence linking him to the crime.

That’s when Keller takes matters into his own hands and, in a lesser movie, this is where viewers get to root for him as he knocks heads together. Instead, Keller sinks to the level of abuser as he kidnaps Alex, locks him in a room, tortures him, all the while guilt-tripping and browbeating the Birches into helping him do it.

The torture scenes are difficult to watch. This isn’t horror-movie histrionics that are so over-the-top as to verge on fantasy; it feels real and violent.

All the while, the methodical Loki — whose distracting, exaggerated blinking is either supposed to signify OCD or an odd acting choice on the part of Gyllenhaal and the director — is looking for evidence to pin this on someone. Alex? The strange guy in the hoodie at the candlelight vigil? Maybe Keller himself?

Villeneuve matches the emotional mood with a grey color palette — it always seems to be raining or just about to — and a sense of quiet claustrophobia. As a director, Villeneuve is definitely someone to watch.

Though it sometimes seems when he explodes in rage that Jackman is channeling his inner Jean Valjean, the acting is impressive, especially that of Howard and Davis as parents torn between their anger at Alex for his alleged crime and Keller for sapping them of their humanity.

The trouble is that the movie, at 153 minutes, goes on too long. And it’s questionable whether the resolution is worth a 2-1/2-hour wait.

We get it: We’re all “Prisoners” at some level. But the audience may feel that they’re the ones imprisoned.